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Africa: Life near the mines

The search for diamonds is not exactly. Many miners and diamond diggers in sub-Saharan Africa travel great distances to find work and submit to gruelingly long hours for low wages – or sometimes no wages - in sub-standard conditions.

The informal mining industry is where workers tend to be most exploited. In the Wild West atmosphere of many informal diamond mines the quest for the “big find” – and financial gain it promises - is the all-encompassing goal and all other issues of morality or civic responsibility go out the window. 

Child labor has long been a problem in informal diamond mines – especially during times of war. Children have often been exploited to do excavation work because they are small enough to be lowered into small narrow pits by ropes to dig out sacks of dirt which is in turn washed by other children in search of diamonds.

During Sierra Leone’s 10 year civil war, children were often used as soldiers and workers in the rich Koidu diamond mines that funded the country’s rebels. USAID launched the Kono Peace Diamond Alliance in 2002 to try to improve the working conditions in the mines – particularly for children. But, it is an uphill battle, across Africa to get children who either family breadwinners, or fending for themselves, or conscripted into near slave-like labor to stop working and go to school.

Under the best circumstances, mining is fraught with dangers. There is always the possibility of mining accidents, mudslides, walls collapsing and drowning for miners searching for diamonds in alluvial deposits. In Mbuji-Mayi, Democratic Republic of Congo, illegal miners caught in mining concessions can be shot and killed. In August, 2006 the BBC reported that six miners were shot and killed in a mine near the town of Mbuji-Mayi for illegal mining.

While the development of the diamond industry is seen as key to the economic recovery of former war torn countries like Sierra Leone and Angola, massive environmental degradation is also a by-product of the rapid rush to gain riches - particularly in informal, unregulated mining.

Land is often cleared and vegetated areas are dug up to create open pit mines in the rushed search for diamond deposits – leaving it unsuitable for other farming activities. Informal mining in hilly areas also leads to severe erosion – and in turn flooding. The salt, heavy minerals, and chemical products from mining equipment can runoff into rivers and pollute vital water sources of mining communities and people living downstream. 

The boom and bust lifestyle in many mining towns has also been blamed for the spread of HIV/ AIDS. A transitory work force plus a thriving sex trade in many mining towns, often leads to the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.

Debswana Diamond Company, a joint venture between Botswana’s government and De Beers, has taken progressive moves to attack the spread of HIV/ AIDS among mine workers and in Botswana by being the first company in the word to provide antiretroviral drugs all its employees. (SEE BOTSWANA sidebar)

The international diamond industry has made moves to improve the conditions of informal mines and to bring them in line with the rest of the formal diamond industry with the start Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) in 2005. (SEE SIDEBAR). 

SIDEBAR: Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) was created in 2005 as a result of a meeting of government, civil society, diamond industry representatives like DeBeers, as well as the non-governmental organization Global Witness, to address the problems of informal diamond mining and try to bring it into the mainstream diamond industry and the Kimberley Process. The DDI’s goal is to address the poor living and working conditions of the people at the core of the diamond industry – the estimated one million diamond diggers. The DDI hopes to convert diamonds as a means for war – as they were in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola – to a catalyst for economic development.

By educating diggers on the fair market value of stones, creating better access to artisanal mining equipment, and lobbying for better labor laws to reduce the exploitation of child laborers in the mining fields, the DDI hopes to help diggers get better prices for their stones and improve their lives and communities.

USAID has also funded the Peace Diamond Alliance in Sierra Leone since 2002 to help improve the diamond industry and make sure that profits from the industry improve communities, instead of serving as a source of revenue for war.